Monday 29 March 2010

Review: "The Art of Clowning", by Eli Simon

It's a sad day when people who are so clueless about clowning are actually publishing books telling us how to do it, such as this from Eli Simon's "The Art of Clowning" (2009, New York: Palgrave Macmillan): "It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh." (p.31)

Simon talks a lot about truthfulness, but there is very little of it in this disappointing book. His haughty dismissals of the "maniacal clown who freaks out the neighourhood" set the tone for a book that has pretensions to superiority: "thsse Bozo-type clowns... are not the soulful clowns you will likely develop using this book." (p.4)

However, the exercises and advice that follow do not measure up to such claims, running along the lines of tired old impro tasks like "take an object and transform it". Hardly a case of "you will be deeply connected to truths rather than just gags" (p.6)

I fear that there will be many who will use this book as their bible, delighted to be relieved of the responsibility of actually being funny, and will fool themselves into believing that their uninteresting and formless work is full of truth. In other words, it may contribute to the continued lowering of standards in clowning today. Books sometimes do have an effect, as we aw a few years back in Spain with Jesús Jara's "El Clown: un Navegante de las Emociones", which resembles Simon's work in its insipidness and false claims to deep insight, and has misled countless clown students.


Pat Cashin said...

I have not read the book but I can agree about the proliferation of pretentious clowns.

The world right now could use a few more Charlie Rivels and Lou Jacobs and a few less naked, post-ironic 20-somethings in red noses performing their new traditional Heyoka-inspired bouffon piece entitled "Clown Labia Now!"at the Plonkaroo Political Action Theater Festival.

I get it, you're "edgy".

Pat Cashin said...

And please don't deconstruct that comment, workshop it for two years and use it as the basis for your fringe show.

The very simple and elegant joy of a clown is the magic of spending some pleasant time with a very silly person who can entertain a small child, their older siblings, their parents and their grandparents, all on different levels, all with the same material.

It's very hard for a clown to do that; much harder than the laughs that come from shocking adults with "extreme" behavior. That's why there are so few good ones.

Jon Davison said...

Totally agree, Pat.

Which comment did you mean, yours or the one about clowns not having to be funny? Thinking of working on an unfunny clown number now... could be fun...

By the way, see my log-winded blog post today for my contribution to pretentiousness.

Jon Davison said...

I meant "long"-winded, oops

Anonymous said...

I believe Your option is not based on expirence. you should see the clowns that come out of his program they are a new breed, from another planet, and they are very funny.

Jon Davison said...

Hi Anonymous,

My comments are based on my experience of reading the book, and are about the book. I have seen videos of performers trained with Eli Simon and I have to say they don't make me laugh in the slightest. I don't think they are a new breed, either, I have seen many similar performers over many years. I am not saying they are not good as performers, just that I think they have distanced themselves from clowning (which is what annoys me about the book, in that it criticises and demeans other clowns).

Anonymous said...

Hello Jon,

Coming from a theatrically trained standpoint, I am curious to how much you have studied or been trained as an actor. I wonder because you ridicule Simon's quote: "It's okay not to be funny. Clowns do not have to make people laugh", when in fact this statement holds much truth in terms of objective and being present as a clown. As an actor for instance (because clowning is a form of acting), one's focus is not on "what emotion can I now show to get a response", but rather on the circumstances of the scene and objectives within. At least, if the actor is well trained. The focus of an actor should be to stay present and truthful in the scene, actions, etc, not to perform or put on a show. As humans with instinct, we can often sense when one is not being truthful or feeling the emotion they are putting on, and this becomes unsatisfying. It's not likely people will want to watch a performance of raw "showing" instead of "being". Do you want to watch a forced fake-it-till-you-make-it? I don't, I personally prefer a little more quality of action. It is the SAME with clowns. Do we want to watch a clown, or someone pretending to clown, not being true to their inner clown, but hoping to get a laugh, looking for response over their experience in front of people. Truth is, clowns are generally funny by nature, so if you have to force actions to get a laugh or try really hard, I suggest reworking skills and perspective, something is wrong. It's better to join a clown for a journey, and watch them be rather than watch someone get up there with gags and the simple goal of getting positive attention. The audience feeds a clown, it's true, but it is okay for a clown to fail, to learn what works and doesn't, and it is okay to receive other reactions besides laughter. One of the best routines I have seen (and I have been studying and observing for some time) was of a raw social message, a little scary and uncomfortable, but struck me in a way that non-clowns would not be able to pull off the same.

Also, is clowning only about being funny? I have a little more faith in clowning perhaps, because I see clowns having the ability to affect, teach and enlighten audiences in more ways than just humor.

With your statement "delighted to be relieved of the responsibility of actually being funny, and will fool themselves into believing that their uninteresting and formless work is full of truth" you are assuming and implying that people are not capable of finding natural humor by being true to their clowns. That humor cannot come organically, but must be searched for and forced.

I have purchased and read this book, and find it to be fantastic, especially because of the attention it pays to theatrical concept and training, rather than gag-forged humor. So if you would like to focus on the "maniacal clown who freaks out the neighborhood" the "Bozo-types", by all means go ahead. There are many more like this that find solace in simple design, can entertain and audience without digging deeper into their own clowning experience. I'm sorry that you did not find Eli's clowns funny Jon, that's unfortunate, because you are in the minority in truth. A little tip- before you blatantly announce that someone is "clueless about clowning" make sure you yourself are not. These are high judgements to make, especially if you cannot back them up.

Jon Davison said...

Hello Anonymous,

Firstly, in response to your doubts about my actor training, I came to clowning from theatre. I trained with a mixture of teachers of acting, clowning and other performance areas, such as: Théâtre de Complicité, Franki Anderson, John Lee, Simon Shepherd, Guy Dartnell, Luci Gorell-Barnes, Ruth Zaporah, Jonathan Kay, Moshe Cohen, Pete Holdway, Franki Armstrong, Bim Mason, Kate Verney, Barry Grantham, Bob Wade and Philippe Gaulier (mostly in Britain and Spain). My postgraduate studies were in Drama Practice as Research, at the University of Kent. I taught Actor Training, Clown and Techniques of Improvisation, at undergraduate and postgraduate levels at the Institut del Teatre de Barcelona (state-run drama school) from 1996-2006. I worked for 3 years as a post-doctoral researcher at Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, investigating and teaching Techniques of Clown and Actor Training, focusing especially on 20th-century Actor Training, and during which time I worked with: Lenard Petit, Gerry Flanagan, Peta Lily, John Wright, Franc Chamberlain, Chris Johnston and Jaya Hartlein, amongst others. I am currently a Visiting Lecturer there, as well as Co-Director of Studies at the Barcelona Clown School, where I have worked with many clown teachers of varied approaches, such as: Sue Morrison, Jango Edwards, Jesús Jara, Hilary Ramsden, Danny Schlesinger, Pablo Muñoz, Chris Lynam, Sara Pons, John Beale, Carlo Mô, Loco Brusca, Gary Boardman and Nuria Pereto. As a performer, I have worked continuously since my student days in 1983, principally in independent companies and as a solo clown performer. So my opinions are of someone who is experienced in and very familiar with a range of actor- and clown-training methods. (Which doesn’t necessarily make them right, of course, but that is where I’m coming from.)

You say that the actor/clown’s focus should be to stay present and truthful. With this I agree. But you also say that this truth resides in the circumstances of the scene, the objectives, and so on. What you say holds true for an actor who is called upon to be convincing within a set of fictional circumstances. In a broad sense, this is what actors do: they inhabit a fiction, which the audience is called upon to believe (at least on one level). But for me, although I agree that clowning is a form of acting, clowns do not engage with fictional worlds in the same way as actors. Although they may nominally seem to have objectives at times, fundamentally, the clown’s ‘circumstances’ are ‘being on this particular stage at this particular moment in front of this particular audience’. This ‘theatrical reality’ takes precedence over any ‘fictional reality’ that might or might not also be there. This is not only true in contemporary clowning, but has been true, I believe, historically. For example, the performance mode of clowns in Shakespeare is distinct in a similar way from the mode of other actors in the same performances (have a look at David Wiles’ book ‘Shakespeare’s Clown’ for a fascinating exploration of this). At other times, it is true, clowns have become more assimilated into the fictional world of the play, or more constrained to carry out a specific aim of the author’s (an extreme example, arguably, being Beckett’s clown-derived characters). But I would say that generally, one thing that defines clowns is their freedom from the fiction being created. More than that, it is almost their role (or duty) to actually contradict that fiction (I’d recommend Donald McManus’s book ‘No Kidding!’ on this, which looks at clown’s influence on 20th-century theatre).

[continues in next comment]

Jon Davison said...

[continued from previous comment]

So I don’t think clowns have objectives or circumstances in quite the same way as actors/characters do. I think that, just as the clown’s ‘circumstances’ are ‘being on stage’, then the clown’s ‘truth’ is ‘being ridiculous’. The clown-actor’s job, then, is to reveal themselves as ridiculous, and that if we allow this ridiculous truth to be seen, the audience will laugh. That is the clown mode. So I partly agree with you that to clown one must be ‘truthful’. But I think the fallacy is to then take this devotion to truth and separate it and from, and privilege it over, the effect on the audience of being ridiculous/laughable/funny.

I think this is a mistake many in clowning make and it is an easy mistake to make. I have seen countless students of clown get hooked on the initial discovery of clown: ‘wow, this is truthful, I feel like myself, free, to do and feel as I wish in the moment’. There is an amazing sense of liberation and connection with oneself, with ‘truth’. But then it is easy to then ostensibly follow the path of personal truth but avoid the duty to appear ridiculous (be funny). I think this is an ‘easy option’, because it is the self-exposure of one’s own ridiculousness which is the ‘hard bit’ of clowning, whereas a kind of generalised ‘self-expression’ or a release of the emotions is relatively easy. This leads to what you describe as ‘clowns having the ability to affect, teach and enlighten audiences in more ways than just humor’. That truth-seeking or saying other things might be interesting, or it might not, but I would exclude it from the field of clown, unless its fundamental motor is ‘I am ridiculous’ (which implies that the clown-performer, at one level, knows that his/her aim as clown is for laughs).

The connection between the performer’s ridiculous presence and the audience’s laughter in response is what defines clown. As Philippe Gaulier says: ‘A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime’ (in his book, ‘The ‘Tormentor’). This might seem to you as a sweeping and disparaging statement, but what lies behind it is, in my opinion, the truth about clowning.

I don’t think there is only one way to ‘be present’. One way is the clown’s way, which reveals us to be stupid/ridiculous. Having the aim, as a clown, of being funny is not therefore anything to do with ‘forcing it’. I would never say you have to force anything, but if you are not getting the laughs, you are not clowning.

I think this is the other side of the fallacy. If one equates truth with clown and then privileges that truth over provoking laughter, then one assumes that clowning which privileges ‘being funny’/gags is its opposite, and therefore must NOT contain truth. This is a rhetorical trick and is basically what I am objecting to, the dualism of ‘truth’ versus ‘gags’, which is expressed frequently in Eli Simon’s book. So from my point of view, the comments which I cited in my review, such as: “maniacal clown who freaks out the neighbourhood" or "these Bozo-type clowns... are not the soulful clowns you will likely develop using this book", don’t hold water, as they are based on a false opposition. It’s not that I am advocating Bozo-type clowns, but I would say that they are no less likely to be effective clowns than are those who follow Simon’s way. I find that disparaging these kind of clowns from a standpoint of ‘it’s okay not to be funny’ to be pretentious. Which is why I mention the video in my original review of the book, as I don’t feel it is a strong argument against ‘Bozo-types’. And for all I know, the work might be very good live, and achieve what it sets out to do, and please a lot of people, but I would still say it isn’t clowning. I think Eli Simon’s book expresses an approach which is prevalent in some parts of the world of clowning today, which is what made me want to comment on it, to say, ‘I disagree’.

[continues in next comment]

Jon Davison said...

[continued from previous comment]

Finally, it’s interesting that you put ‘okay to fail’ in the same sentence as ‘other reactions besides laughter’. In clown, it is the very act of failing which will provoke laughter. Any other kind of failing (not getting laughter) will be missing the point. Of course, this happens all the time in clown training, but the eventual aim should be to find how one fails, admits it and that the natural response of an audience to this is laughter. For me, that is the only valid aim of clowning, and not self-expression, social messages, teaching or enlightening. If clowns have anything to teach us, then it is that we are all ridiculous, and they do this by exposing themselves in front of that audience. And, if you like, you could say that all other messages (personal, social, political, etc.) are implicit in that.

So, I hope I have gone some way to backing up here what was originally a short critical review. And that my point is that it is Simon’s book, and the attitude it represents, that is judgemental, without yet backing up its claims. Later this year my book, ‘Clown – a reader in theatre practice’, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan, which goes into more detail on some of these issues.

Best regards,

Jon Davison

Anonymous said...

Hello Jon,
After reading this, I had a question for you: Is the sole goal of the clown, according to your vision, to make an audience laugh? or can he/she make an audience cry?
(I don't mean cry from laughing so much, I mean crying from living a journey with the clown, from being moved)

Jon Davison said...

Hi anon,
I think that the clown must necessarily be based on the audience response of laughter. All of those things that some claim to put in place of, or in addition to, being funny, such as poetry, emotions, and so on, are only possible (in clown's case) if the relationship with the audience, and the whole world, is based on a perception that all is ridiculous, which means laughable. So I think that wanting to be more profound than being funny is a big presumptuous error. For me, the clown who provokes laughter is far more profound than constructing a character, a story, poetry, or provoking some emotional response such as sadness. All these things could also occur, but they are either secondary or just irrelevant.

Asking if clowns have to be funny is like asking if clowns have to be clowns. Otherwise, what would be the basis of clowns? So I do agree with Philippe Gaulier when he says, rather naughtily, ‘A clown who doesn’t provoke laughter is a shameful mime’ ("The Tormentor" p.289; Paris: Éditions Filmiko).

JN said...

Hi Jon,

I just stumbled across your blog through a very fortuitous google search and based on the post above I'm already chomping at the bit to dive into more. However, the original post and the comments following it are of immediate interest to me and I wanted to intentionally antagonize you with my ignorance in order to gain a better understanding of how you feel/think about clown.

I'm a young director in his 20's. I've always had a love for physical comedy, commedia, Chaplin/Keaton/Llyod, things that cluster around clowning and were accessible to me in my 21th century middle-class american education. I've recently started working with a group of like-minded artists and we've used Eli Simon's book as a starting point for our work as clowns. I'm more than a little ashamed to admit that we fit many of the identifiers listed above of pretentious terrible mimes who put on red noses and play our silly improv games.

However --and these are now words written wearing the hat of an artist commenting on his own work and therefore completely devoid of any sort of objective analysis-- I happen to think that our finished products are pretty good. At the very least, they are decent theatrical works that generally engender a good response from our audiences (in my completely biased, artist-seeking-validation opinion). We follow the basic rules set out by Simon's book and work within those restrictions to create clown characters. Each of the clowns develops it's own personality, and most of our work in rehearsal comes from diving deep into that personality and coming up with, for lack of a better term, a unique point of view for each clown. The way that the personality of each clown expresses itself is through little bits, or to casually misuse the term, lazzis. We string those together to create a show.

Our process, however, seems barely germane to the topic at hand. My confusion, and my question, rest at the intersection of "Clowns don't have to be funny." We, like the philistines that offend you, don't 'try' to be funny. We try to exist in the moment and react as honestly as we can to the reality that our clowns are in. However, and this is where I get lost, our pieces are always funny, unless they're so overwhelmingly sad they make you cry, and even then you're laughing. We really embrace that, and in my role as director i am always cautioning people not to rely to greatly on "Being funny" because the audience will be turned off by your falseness. It's only when as performers honestly embrace the true emotions our clowns are feeling do we get laughs. When I read Mr. Simon's words about freedom from funny, i'm hearing him as a teacher urging his students not to try and jump straight to smashing watermelons with sledgehammers before figuring out that it's Galagher's honest rage that makes it funny (not that i'm particularly turned on by Galagher, but the point still stands). He's urging you to develop depth of character in order to make a gag work. As a troupe, that's the ethos we try to live by. Granted, we're still pretentious yuppies gentrifying the ghetto and descrating the ancient art of clown, but I do feel like we're at least in the ball-park of something clown related.

What are we missing? What makes us true clowns or fake clowns? Not to start a whole different conversation, but it's not realistic for us to pursue higher training at this point in our lives, and so we're cut off from training with any grand masters that might uncover the gurus within us. We're stuck as humble clowns trying to make it in a modern world where we're exposed to many different forms of media but have found comfort and freedom of expression in something that was once a cousin of an old and proud tradition. We're not dumb enough to think that we're the ones carrying The Torch, but we're naive enough to believe that we're doing something worthwhile.

Thank you,

Jon Davison said...

Hi JN,
Sorry for not getting round to replying to you earlier.

Doing mime, putting on red noses and doing silly improv games is nothing to be ashamed of! And really who cares which social class you come from? My comment about pretentiousness was aimed at the belief that one way of clowning is superior to another simply because of aesthetics.

On that issue of having to be funny or not, I understand the point you are making, but ultimately the aim and, in my opinion, the definition of a clown resides in making people laugh (in a particular way, as there are many different ways of making people laugh). Existing in the moment and being honest all have their part to play, but without the desire to stage ridiculousness (defined as what is laughable about any individual clown) there can be no clown.

The duality of ‘real’ versus ‘fake’ clowns is in my opinion an entirely false one. Clowns play with and manage both the ‘real’ and the ‘fake’. To believe that some clowns can be more ‘real’ or ‘fake’ than others is to miss the point.

Neither do I believe there is any grand tradition or grand ‘masters’ to ‘desecrate’. On the contrary, it is the promotion of the discourse that some particular ways of clowning can lay claim to something ‘higher’ which I object to.

Best wishes,


Pookie said...

I have read Eli Simon's book, and am going through the exercises. Thus far, it has proved helpful.

I enjoy the book because, for myself and in my estimation, it focuses on helping to develop a clown character or persona. It provides a way to learn to instinctively respond in any situation as a clown.

My thinking is then the heart of the comedy will come from clown performing and responding to stimuli in relation to their character. There is still a need to make the situation funny, and this is made somewhat easier when there is a "natural" response.

I do agree, however Mr. Simon's focus on the acting versus being funny is misguided. If you aren't funny or entertaining, why are clowning? So I focus more on developing my clown's character and discard the "acting" stuff.

Currently I am also adding other exercises and thoughts to this to create a well rounded clown.